A studio for bird study

Tag: museum

Light Morph Harlan’s Hawk – A Noteworthy Specimen

by Bryce W. Robinson

Adult light morph "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis harlani

Adult light morph “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis harlani

I wanted to share this specimen I found today while going through the small bird collection at Boise State University. It is a great example of the variable traits of the Red-tailed Hawk subspecies harlani. I really enjoy the variable plumages of the Red-tailed Hawk in North America. At the top of my list, as with most Red-tailed Hawk fans, is the Harlan’s.

Here are a few things I found interesting when I first found the bird:

  • Some tell-tale light Harlan’s traits – whitish head with streaking, red/pink tail fading to white/gray at the base (Harlan’s tails are ultra variable, but I’ve seen this regularly on light Harlan’s), Harlan’s spotting on tail, warm tones in upper tail and dorsal area, blotchy streaking on belly band.
  • Some not so Harlan’s traits – orange barring on leggings (typical of western RTHA), and barred belly band accompanying blotchy streaking. Strange and neat! Also of note is the amount of red in the tail. Common in Harlan’s, but often confused as a sign of intergradation.

I’m a bit disappointed that the tail wasn’t spread at preparation, so it was difficult to get a full glimpse of each feather. Additionally, there was no informative data accompanying the specimen, apart from a tag that read “Red-tailed Hawk”. As I’ve become more familiar with the art of museum preparation and the usefulness of specimens in research, I’ve become more aware of how important information is to put a specimen into context.

Even though the data is lacking, I’m really appreciative of the opportunity to look at this bird and take some photos. It’s a really interesting light morph Harlan’s that deserves some recognition. It made my day.

For some more insight into variability in light morph Harlan’s, check out this article by Jerry Liguori:



Learning New Skills – Preparing Study Skins

by Bryce W. Robinson

From left to right: Sora - Porzana carolina, 2 male Brown-headed Cowbirds - Molothrus ater, 2 female Brown-headed Cowbirds - Molothrus ater

From left to right: Sora – Porzana carolina, 2 male Brown-headed Cowbirds – Molothrus ater, 2 female Brown-headed Cowbirds – Molothrus ater, all drying after preparation.

I’ve embarked on a new adventure in my ornithological education. I am now learning how to prepare study skins for museum collections with the help of my advisor Dr. David Anderson. My personal catalogue number 001 is a female Brown-headed Cowbird – Molothrus ater (farthest right specimen in the photo).

This is a new experience for me, and one that I’ve been looking forward to for a very long time. I’ll be sharing what I learn along the way.

Buteo cooperi- A Journey of Mystery Into Ornithological History

by Bryce W. Robinson


A quick sketch of my interpretation of Buteo cooperi

A few weeks ago my friend Mike called me and asked if I was interested in helping him solve a bit of a mystery he had stumbled upon. A friend of his had found an old ornithology book in a store in Moab, Utah. She was admiring the plates, and came upon one that interested her. It was an illustration of a hawk named Buteo cooperi. She had never heard of any Buteo with the species epithet cooperi. Her curiosity caused her to contact Mike and ask if he had any idea what this bird might be. He had never heard of Buteo cooperi either, but resolved to solve the mystery.

Mike did some research and came up with a reporting of two accounts of this Buteo cooperi. Apparently, in 1855, an ornithologist named J.G. Cooper came upon an interesting hawk in southern California. He shot the hawk, as was the custom of the time, and collected the specimen. He decided the bird was its own species and coined it Buteo cooperi. Mike found this account, as well as an account by the ornithologist Ridgway on the California bird and a second Colorado bird. You can read his account  here. Both accounts hover around the possibility that this bird is somehow related to the Red-tailed Hawk- Buteo jamaicensis, and could possibly be the light phase of the subspecies Harlani. Ridgway reviewed the decision to coin Buteo cooperi as a separate species, however he was confused by the coloration of the primaries, and could not settle upon the identity of the bird. It was left unsettled.

When Mike called me, he had felt that he needed a second opinion and some help with the bird. I of course agreed to help. As I am a true geek when it comes to the world of birds, I thought the journey back into the archives of ornithological history would prove fruitful for my education. And of course it would also be fun. I read the two papers that he sent me describing the bird, and felt that the specimen was likely the light morph of Buteo jamaicensis harlani, the Harlan’s Hawk. Still, to be thorough, I searched further.

I finally found a definitive answer to support my assumptions at the following link.


This description from a review of the specimen in 1930 gave me the impression without much doubt that the bird known as Buteo cooperi was in fact a light morph Buteo jamaicensis harlani. I felt good about where the mystery came to its end, but for the need to somehow come to an answer of my own, I decided to do some further looking, and it payed off.

I found a link to information regarding a specimen at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The specimen is in fact the very bird that J.G. Cooper shot, and collected. You could imagine my excitement at finding that the specimen was still around. You can see the link here.

I decided that the only way for me to come to any conclusion on the birds identity was to see the bird for myself. At the moment, I was not in any position to make a trip to Washington D.C., so I thought I would take a chance at emailing the curators of the museum in hopes that they might send me some photos.

Below, you can see the result of that email. They sent me photos!







It is obvious by these photos that this is indeed a light morph Harlan’s Hawk. I love the white in the crown and nape.  What an adventure. I am super thankful to Mike for including me in the hunt. I would also like to thank those at the Smithsonian for their cooperation and willingness to send me these photos. My curiosity and fascination for the study of birds knows no end, and the history of ornithology is no exception. Let the journey for knowledge continue.